It’s been closing in on twenty years since my wife and I packed our bags and moved from rural Maryland to Jackson, Mississippi so that I could attend seminary. And though that seems like almost another life, one question I was asked stands out still today. You see, part of my application to attend seminary included a telephone interview in which I was asked to share a little about my faith and walk with Christ. In that interview, the interviewer asked, “Are you saved by faith or by works?” My response, one practiced both in my personal witness and from the pulpit at that time was, “We are saved by grace alone; not by works.”
The interviewer pressed me, “Not by any works at all?” I said, “My works are of no benefit to my salvation.” Once more he asked the same question, “Any works?”
Now you see, my mother didn’t raise any dummies, so I got to thinking more closely about the interviewer’s question. What was it that he was trying to fish out of me. I knew my theology and I knew what the Apostle Paul said in Romans and Ephesians about salvation by grace, but I recognized he was fishing for something, so I thought it through again. Were there any works involved in my salvation? Certainly not on my part. My own salvation was a story of God’s glorious victory over a rebellious sinner, a sinner who only came to faith kicking and screaming because I knew the lifestyle to which God was calling me. My only contribution was dragging my heels as best as I could against God’s irresistible grace. No, there were no works of my own that contributed to my salvation, it was entirely a work of Christ. And right there, it struck me as for what the interviewer was fishing. I said, “It is only by the work of Christ that I am saved.” And I could almost see his smile through the telephone.
One thing that we sometimes miss is that God’s grace, while free to us, is not truly free. It cost someone something, and that someone was His Son, Jesus. The just demands of the Law had to be paid and they had to be paid in full. I can’t do that for myself, let alone for another. And thus, this work Jesus did on my behalf and on behalf of every believer throughout the history of mankind. This is the work that Jesus did on the cross of Calvary. Indeed, it was a work found both in Christ’s active obedience (fulfilling the Law of God perfectly in this life) and in his passive obedience (receiving upon himself the wrath of his Father for my sins and the sins of every believer throughout history). And, in this sense, we are saved by works — works found in the merit of Christ. In that, we receive free grace so that no man may boast.
And so, Question 21 of the Heidelberg Catechism closes with this as a reminder: “These are freely given by God and he does it out of grace alone for the sake of Christ’s merit.” It is what theologians will call a “vicarious” sacrifice — one in which Jesus does the work in which we benefit. We receive it freely by God’s grace alone…yet, it is for Christ’s merit and he is rightly praised for this work. Though we receive it freely, there was a terrible price paid for our redemption.